AN EXTRAORDINARY stramash of corruption, geopolitics and football spread itself into Leith last night as the most unglamorous of friendlies suddenly looked like the most vital match there had ever been.
The tiny, ludicrously-rich desert kingdom had played on our shores before – at the beginning of the week, in fact. But since then football had lost its despot, brought down for vain and crazed over-reaching, according to many, after holding up an open envelope to reveal the word “QATAR”. Easter Road, which prides itself on many “firsts”, was to provide us with a glimpse of the hosts of the – allegedly – “bought” 2022 World Cup.
Of course, the friendly was already mired in a stooshie of its own before Sepp Blatter’s demise. Human rights campaigners had wanted it scrapped because of the appalling conditions endured by migrant workers hired to build stadia and give Qatar at least the superficial appearance of a football nation. There had been talk of protests and a boycott. At half-past seven last night, the crowd resembled the average for a Hibernian league match against, say, Dundee – but one from the gloomy Bobby Williamson era. Outside the stadium, a dozen placard carriers had mustered: “Play fair, Qatar” … “Guilty of continuous systematic abuse of construction workers” … and one with a photo of Bill Shankly, re-working his classic quote and claiming that in Qatar, football is a matter of life and death.
Inside, the counter-argument came from two fans clad in a colour which long-term residents of this ground would not wish to call maroon: “Qatar deserves the World Cup.” You had to feel sorry for Gordon Strachan, a football man, being asked questions about politics when he was trying to ready his players for Euros qualification – or in his case, choosing not to answer those inquiries. As the Scottish team limbered up, you watched Scott Brown and the others and wondered how much attention they’d paid to the gargantuan story happening round about this match. Footballers, so we are told, are simple creatures, habitues of the back pages, pragmatic souls who just want to play. Well, that focus is to be admired.
You wondered what the Qatari team thought of all the scrutiny as their perky anthem sounded out. Did they looked hunched, nervous, scared? Not really. In the word of one of Qatar’s migrant workers, ex-Hibee Brian Rice who now coaches the Al-Khor team: “People have forgotten there is a football match taking place.”
Rice had marked our cards about Hassan Al Haidos being Qatar’s top man and the captain got the first shot on target in the eighth minute, a firmly-struck free kick from 30 yards. You might even say it was a Blatter of a strike but David Marshall saved comfortably. It took the Scots, through Steven Naismith, another six minutes to test Amine Lecomte. This stop was routine but he had to be agile to tip over from the same man.
When Qatar played Northern Ireland at the start of the week, at Crewe, Irish fans had chanted: “How much did you pay for the World Cup?” There was none of this from the Tartan Army who were getting re-acquainted with Charlie Mulgrew, scrutinising Ikechi Anya in an unusual right-back role and groaning at the wastefulness in front of goal of Matt Ritchie and Shaun Maloney. But these were only mild groans, as the main thing for Scotland was to get a run around without injury – and to get this troublesome game well and truly out of the way.
The visitors had to wait a while for another sight of goal but the Blatter from Abdelkarim Fadalla was a horrible effort which struck one of the Qatar Airways hoardings erected in the stadium’s corners. The match needed something but possibly not the dramatically untoned physique of the streaker who sallied forth in the 40th minute. He was allowed to slide across the centre circle and engage Ahmed Abdelrhman in conversation (“Would I get away with this in your country?”) before stewards intervened. Maybe the intruder unsettled Qatar as a minute later they let in Ritchie for his debut international goal.
If there’s anything more underwhelming than the first half of friendlies then it’s usually the second half when the flow – often non-existent, admittedly – is disrupted by a raft of replacements. Old Hibee Leigh Griffiths and Charlie Adam were given run-outs but no one could quite manage a 65-yard wonder goal. Qatar decided to venture forward in search of an equaliser but, although they showed they are no mugs under their Uruguayan coach Jose Daniel Carreno, it didn’t quite come. Just as well. The match had already caused more than enough embarrassment.